Wild city //The comfort and magic of chairs

I have always liked the look of chairs. They are a friendly piece of furniture, with arms and legs like we have. Their general shape looks familiar, like the letter “h.”

A woman I know has a painting in her living room of kitchen chairs tipped this way and that. They are on a blue background that could be the sky. Her more optimistic friends think the chairs are flying, but the grumpy ones think they are falling.

I’ve had chairs on the brain recently because we replaced our two small pink arm chairs that we purchased, used, back in 1997. They were worn out, but it was still hard to part with them. I’ve sat in my husband’s lap, read thousands of student papers, held our daughter and opened Christmas presents in those chairs.

And once a week, when they were little, my niece and nephew came over and we read a “Freddy the Pig” book, the three of us in a pink chair. Written in the 1930s, Freddy books were my husband’s favorites when he was young. It turns out kids haven’t changed all that much. They still enjoy the antics of witty talking animals who have adventures.

My niece and nephew would take turns: one would settle in my lap, and the other would wedge in next to me. It was a tight fit, and there were arms and legs everywhere. When we finished a chapter, the kids would trade places.

One time my nephew was in my lap. He had on a T-shirt and little corduroys with an elastic waist. I was reading aloud. He sighed, shifted and then I felt him totally relax. What a pleasure, to have a warm, heavy beloved being give himself over to you and your lap.

In “The Book of Symbols” it says that a chair mimics “the lap of the Great Mother, the imaginal and infinite womb of nature in which all is conceived. Physically her lap is echoed in hill, mountain, tree branch, rock clefts and the smooth surfaces of huge boulders. Even ordinary chairs carry her presence in their arms, legs, and back.”

The other day I had a rocking chair tipped on its side on the floor. I was trying to repair one of its rockers. It looked like a person lying there, which brought to mind my father-in-law, who lived in a senior complex near us years ago. He was 89, and had cancer, but he still took the bus to the library on his own and accompanied me on errands.

We went to the food co-op once. I told him earnestly how important it was to buy organic food. Then in the dairy section I was trying to decide which brand of milk to buy. It was between a brand whose name I can’t remember, and one called Mom’s. My father-in-law, a stern, well-educated man, paused for a moment and said: “Maybe that is a little too organic.” We both laughed.

Back at his apartment, putting away groceries, I handed him a large bottle of prune juice. He grabbed it, but the weight of it coming at him was something he couldn’t absorb. The bottle just kept moving with him attached to it, which made him fall over.

He lay there on his side. He was not hurt, but it alerted us to how frail he had become.

At night when I lie in bed, before falling off to sleep, I think about how vulnerable we are, as we lie curled under the covers, and how dear that pose is. We all share this need for rest and we all lie down like babies, let go of everything, let down our guard. It is amazing we don’t love each other better, given this common tender experience.

We replaced our pink chairs with two others we got at a consignment store.
These new ones are on the chunky side (if these chairs had been dogs, they’d have been bull dogs; if cars, they’d have been DeSotos). They had been reupholstered in a fabric patterned with peacock feathers.

I’d say they teeter between being classy and being goofy, which suits us just fine.

I’ve read that the peacock is the national bird of India, and is good at killing snakes. But they don’t just kill them. Legend has it that peacocks can transform what is poisonous, venom, for example, into a healing medicine. The legendary peacocks turned snake venom into their beautiful blue throat feathers and transformed the snake’s crafty eyes into what are called the “eyes of wisdom” on their spectacular tails.

So we’ve brought both comfort and magic into our house, I think, as I sit in one of our new chairs.

Mary Jean Port writes at home, near Minnehaha Creek and Lake Harriet, and teaches at The Loft Literary Center.